Jenni Doherty's Rain Spill

The Derry poet mines her love life, and stands up for the Northern Irish weather, in her latest collection published by Guildhall Press

Some poetry collections are spare and short, and obviously the distilled work of long, hard years, while some feel copious, more like a diary, crammed with poems and prose pieces and songs and scraps of everything.

Rain Spill, by Derry-based poet Jenni Doherty, is the latter kind – not just a collection of poems from over a 20-year period but almost a mini-memoir, covering a broad expanse of time and a wide variety of subjects: friendship, love, ageing, families, sex (more on that later), youth, drinking, nostalgia, Christmas, technology, religion and politics.

It’s a bracing and unpretentious collection of work that you can absorb in one sitting and come out the other end feeling you’ve just had a long, frank, funny conversation with a complete stranger who feels like a friend.

Doherty is originally from Greencastle in County Donegal but now lives in Derry~Londonderry, where she works in publishing and marketing alongside Little Acorns, the independent bookshop she founded in the Bedlam market.

Doherty has had a varied career but always with links to literature, be it library work, creative writing, journalism or cultural programming. She worked for many years for the Derry publishing house, Guildhall Press.

Yet you sense that poetry is the main focus for her: its writing, performing and dissemination in a world where it can seem marginal, obscure, too difficult or forbidding to engage with.

Rain Spill is Doherty’s first collection and as I read it, I was struck with the presence of the natural world throughout, making its presence felt everywhere – an elemental force that co-exists and seems to mirror the human interaction being portrayed.

‘Well, coming from a fishing village and growing up surrounded by the Atlantic ocean has been a great and heavy influence,’ Doherty explains. ‘I feel very much at ease and connected to the sea, very proud of my roots and one of the few who’s not bothered by our mad weather.

'If anything, I prefer rain to sun, storms to sunshine. While gathering material it was only then that I realised how much of an influence this was on the majority of my work – in the subject matter, language and shape.’

There is also a melancholy to the collection, particularly some of the relationship poems, such as 'Six Years Later', which ends with the line ‘I curse the day we met’. It’s the kind of candour that makes you wonder how past boyfriends might react.

‘To be honest, it was something I did think of, about how the obvious or anonymous person of the poem might feel should they read it,’ she admits. ‘Some pieces are true to the word where others have been altered for effect or dramatic licence. I have shown a few pieces to past boyfriends and, well, they’re still speaking to me. That said, you have to have lived, loved and lost to let yourself be open to do it all again.’

There is also a lot of sex in the book. Sex as a wild, mysterious thing, or sometimes an empty transaction. ‘There is a lot of "sex" in the book,' says Doherty, 'but this is not a sexy book. It’s a book about love, passion, sensuality, warmth, as much as it’s a book about sexual violence, abuse, and women’s issues.

'It’s a very thin line between love and sex, and it's difficult sometimes to attain the right balance. To attempt to communicate any depth of any emotion or feeling, you need to have experienced it for it to ring as sincere.’

The performance element remains a key part of the writing for Doherty, who has performed her poetry throughout Ireland and the UK, Australia and in New York. There is a distinct sense when reading Rain Spill that these are words that need to be expressed aloud, that will achieve their greatest power when spoken.

‘Poetry is the music of what happens, and indeed the voice is the instrument,' Doherty confirms. 'I read aloud every thing I write because if the language doesn’t ring true, if it doesn’t sound right or have some sort of musicality, then I don’t think it translates or works. To then perform a piece in front of a live audience is a real challenge and honour.’

Doherty is clearly very much part of the cultural landscape in Derry, and is proud of the city that has shaped her as an artist. Given the UK City of Culture 2013 celebrations are now in full swing, there could be no better time for her to release this latest collection. Doherty is excited to be part of the maiden city's greatest year in the spotlight.

‘Yes, and I hope to hold some exciting events in Little Acorns involving local and well-known authors, such as a 24-hour interactive read-a-thon and events to mark World Book Day and World Book Night. I want to help put the joy and love of literature, reading and writing back on the cultural map. And I can’t wait to see all unfold in Derry this year, and hopefully then write about it someday.’

Rain Spill is published by Eve, a newly launched imprint of Guildhall Press that specialises in promoting female writers. For those interested in reading an accessible and funny collection of poetry, Doherty's latest will be hard to improve on in 2013.